Mei Tao

The 'Designated Survivor' star opens up about her badass career and her passion for healthy living.

Bethany Heitman
March 06, 2018
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"Oooh, they have lemon cake with vegan cream cheese frosting—that’s so hard to find! I’m getting a slice of that. You should get a slice of cake and one of their chocolates. I’m determined to show people how good vegan desserts can be."

That’s what Maggie Q says as we check out the treats at Cocoa V, a vegan pastry shop in New York City. Between her excitement over these sweets, her complete obsession with dogs (on our walk to the shop, the 38-year-old stopped to talk, yes, talk, to two pups on the street), and her warm, friendly appearance (she’s fresh-faced and rocking a gorgeously oversize camel-colored sweater), I’m a little thrown off. This isn’t exactly what I was expecting from an actress who has spent her entire career kicking major ass in action movies like Live Free or Die Hard, Divergent, and Mission: Impossible III. But over cake, peppermint tea, and lots of conversation, Maggie the persona and Maggie the person begin to make sense.

In my time with her, I learn that Maggie believes in challenging herself, always. So if she’s got a big fight scene to film, she’d prefer not to fake it with a stunt double. Nope, she’s going to train like crazy and get it done on her own. Likewise, if she wants you to understand the benefits of going vegan, she’s not going to preach at you. Instead, she’s figured out that it’s way more effective to show you the research so that you can decide for yourself and then introduce you to animal-free food that’s lick-your-lips tasty.

"If you’re destined to be better," she says, leaning back in her chair, "you have to challenge yourself. Otherwise you’re wasted." Listen in as Maggie talks about how she got her start as an actress and why she has continuously strived to improve herself—especially when it comes to her work, her activism, and her love life.

Mei Tao

In your late teens, you left your home in Hawaii to move to Asia, where you modeled and eventually started acting. Tell us about your early career.

Jackie Chan had a management company at the time, and he was looking for young stars to train for a new generation of action movies. He chose a number of guys, and I was the girl. I think because of my background [as a high school track athlete], they were interested in me. But there’s a difference between being a runner and being a kung fu fighter. I couldn’t even touch my toes back then.

So you literally went to action-star boot camp?

Yes, exactly. For every film that they wanted me in, I’d have to go through months of extensive training. Jackie has a team of martial arts experts who trained me. People see me now in action movies and they go, "Well, you’ve been doing it your whole life," and I’m like, "Not even remotely." I was 20 when I started training. I was into the challenge. I didn’t mind proving myself in something that I didn’t know. And because I’d done track races and competitions my whole life, there was a level of victory that lived in me.

You were born Margaret Quigley but started going by Maggie Q while living overseas. Why?

They couldn’t pronounce Quigley in Asia. So that’s what birthed the name Q. When I came back to the States, half the world knew me as one thing, so I couldn’t change it. Impossible III wanted to see me for a role. So I flew to Los Angeles. I woke up the morning of the audition with a 105-degree temperature. I went from shaking and freezing to sweating profusely, but I did the audition anyway. The casting director coached me through it. She said, "If you can hang on for a few more hours, this is going to change your life." I said, “Okay, I’m going to go in the room and get it." I read three scenes for J.J.Abrams, and right there he offered me the movie. I ended up back in my hotel room, so ill, with the curtains drawn for two days. When I finally woke up, there was a huge gift basket in my room. The note said, "Here’s to a great mission. Love, Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams." That’s when it really sunk in that I had gotten it.

Mei Tao

After that you went on to appear in many other action-packed roles, including the lead in the TV show Nikita. But your role on Designated Survivor is a bit different—your character is more of a quietly confident badass. Is that what drew you to her?

I think that your talent has to mature with your age, and you just can’t go around beating people up your entire career. What was nice was that the creator of Designated Survivor didn’t hire me because he thought I could kick someone’s ass. He hired me because he thought I had the internal strength that it took to play a character like her. That meant a lot to me. It felt like a maturing of what strength is.

Switching gears, let’s talk about your activism. How did you get involved with PETA?

I was meeting a friend at a concert, and she was running late. I was waiting outside for her and there was a woman at a table near the front door of the venue. I asked her what she was doing, and she said she was from PETA. We wound up talking, and I asked her to send me all the research she had. Shortly after that, I was flying to Thailand with my manager to do this soft-drink commercial. I opened the research and started reading. By the time the plane landed, she looked at me and said, "You haven’t spoken the entire flight." I said, "I’m done with meat, I’m done with the whole thing.” She started laughing. We went to dinner that night with our clients and I said, "Oh, I’m not eating meat." They asked how long I had not been eating meat, and I said, “Ten hours.” They all started laughing and guessing how long it would last. But I did it. I quit cold turkey and never went back. I haven’t eaten meat in 20 years, and eight years ago I gave up dairy.

How do you approach trying to inform others?

When that woman from PETA asked me if I was an animal lover, I said yes. But at the time, I wore fur; I had snakeskin this and crocodile that. I was one of those disconnected people. That’s why I don’t get angry and go all “How dare you?” on people. That’s not really fair. I try to understand people’s journeys. If they say, “I can just do this now,” I think, “Great!” I am a reformist, not an abolitionist.

You post a lot about animal rescue. Tell us more about that passion.

The nice thing when you grow up without money is that there’s no option to buy an expensive Labrador. My parents were like, "You want an animal? Go to a shelter or find it on the street." I have a special connection to dogs. We breed animals and overprice them and then millions are dying in shelters every year. Even if you don’t care about animals, that just makes no sense.

Mei Tao

What has it been like being a woman in Hollywood during the whole #metoo conversation?

My [fiancé’s mom, Eve Ensler] is a human rights and women’s rights activist. She wrote a play called The Vagina Monologues and has been fighting for the rights of women for many years—way before Hollywood started speaking out. Women have been suffering these abuses for so long, for as long as the world has existed. What’s incredible about right now is that when it happens to Hollywood, people listen. I’m happy that it’s out. The fact that these men were able to get away with what they did because of the climate of fear they created, that’s what needs to go away. And we need to be talking more about the culture that has supported these men.

You’re engaged to Dylan McDermott. What have you learned about intimacy and relationships over the years?

I thank God that I’m not the person I was years ago. I feel so sorry for the men [from my past], because I was very centered on myself. I was all about my ambitions and what I was going to achieve in my life. I never took from anyone, and they could never get close to me. They really tried, and I loved them—it’s just I didn’t know how to do it. I wasn’t there yet. I was more concerned with never having to depend on anyone for anything. I was going to marry the person I loved, not the person I needed. I wanted to achieve everything that I wanted to achieve on my own and then go, "I pick you. I want you, but I don’t need you. I can take care of myself." That always mattered so much to me.

And it matters less now?

It does, because I think there’s strength in sensitivity. There’s strength in knowing that collaboration and help is beautiful. It’s what bonds you. It’s what intimacy is. At a certain age you go, "Okay, well, this thing keeps happening. It’s not working, and the unifying factor here is me, it’s not someone else." It doesn’t just change, you have to do the work.

Mei Tao

Maggie's must-haves

Snack time: "I try to eat nonprocessed foods. I love sprouted and dehydrated nuts. Nuts are very hard to digest, but if you sprout them, they become more digestible. I like this company called Healing Home Foods. It has nuts, and its granola is the best."

Gut health: "I have the most challengeddigestive system—and gut health is central to all health. I partnered with Edison de Mello, MD, and we work on getting the right information about health out to people [through Dr. de Mello’s practice and on activatedyou.com]. Then we found the right company to partner with where we could develop formulas for products [like probiotics and enzymes].”

Bag lady: "Angela Roi is my new favorite person in the world. She makes really good quality vegan ‘leather’ bags. They are scary good—like, you’d never know they’re not real leather."

Skin savoir: "I’m all about all-natural. For skin care, I use a brand called Isun—it’s organic. A lot of what we put on our skin absorbs into the body, so you don’t want there to be toxins."